On December 10, over 50,000 individuals descended on Moscow to contest the results of Russia’s parliamentary elections, representing the country’s biggest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago. The demonstration on the doorstep of the Kremlin stood as a dramatic reminder of the political opposition that has been growing apace since autumn, spurred on by its use of the internet (one of Russia’s few uncensored spaces), and set to play a decisive role in the country’s future as the presidential election in March approaches.
At a surface level, the contribution of the internet to the emergence of this opposition is one of the many ways in which Russia has been shaped by patterns of globalization over the course of 2011; nonetheless, 2012 will reflect the ways in which the country is unique in how it receives, as well as determines, "global" changes.
The unprecedented use of the internet to report on and challenge the outcome of elections can be taken as a symptom of the growing interaction throughout the world between social media and politics. The passage of an anti-corruption bill last spring did little to contain the online allegations of electoral fraud that have been circulating in the past two weeks. Despite Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s insistence on the validity of the results released by the Russian Central Elections Commission – placing his United Russia party with around 49.32% of the vote – in the words of Vassily Gatov, the vice-chair of the Russian Publishers’ Guild and in charge of RIA Novosti’s MediaLab, through blogs and social networks, writers were “serving as a comprehensive public watchdog” as never before.
The development of Russia’s trade relations over the course of 2011 has also contributed to a sense of strengthened ties between the region and the rest of the world. More consciously, the country has moved towards a more open trade relationship with others, demonstrated in the government’s preparations for entry into the World Trade Organisation; the completion of the Nord Stream pipeline in September to allow the distribution of Russian gas to Northern Europe; and even at a more localized level, the beginnings of a challenge to the dominance of the vodka industry as foreign whisky imports grow in popularity.
The country’s trade boundaries have been reduced to the east as well as the west. The preparatory steps for the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Commission last month between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus were a move towards integration of the three economies, with the new co-ordinating body responsible for raising duties and controlling hygiene and immigration. According to Arkady Dvorkovich, a prominent presidential aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian economy is “already competing globally."
However, the attraction of an idea of globalization should not blind one to the uniqueness of national circumstance. The government’s plans for a new bill to impose regulations on the internet will serve as an example of how large governments can respond to the possibilities and challenges posed by the web, but they will also be a particularly important and unusual shift in Russia’s national political culture, given that the March 2011 report of the internet research body, Comscore, concluded that, on average, Russians spend more time on social networking sites that the citizens of any other country.
Should Putin be successful in the presidential election of next March (predicted to be “even dirtier” than the recent parliamentary contests), further demonstrations of open opposition may, on some level, be taken as an extension of the effects of the "Arab Spring," but they will have their own dynamic, rooted in the major political shake-up that occurred only two decades ago.
Theories of "globalization" should not obscure the singular ability of certain countries to make a mark on the rest of the world. Russia is a prominent example of a country that will continue to set trends as much as it follows them during 2012. Its geography, history of confederation, and major influence in the Collective Security Treaty Operation (CSTO) mean that national civil disorder could bring about new patterns of unrest that are suited more specifically to circumstance in the Central Asian republics. (Incidentally, if Russian protests occur, the CSTO will almost certainly need to redefine its stance towards other member states where the leaders have been in power for many years, such as Belarus.)
Even the fact that Russia will be holding its first Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in 2012 seems appropriate, as the vast space it occupies between the European Union and the Central Asian republics reflects the unique role it can play in the economic and business development of both.
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